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Beware the red peril: Indonesia still fighting ghosts of communism
The Guardian - October 1, 2017
In some circles in Indonesia it is like the cold war never ended. Even the military is on board with a paranoid campaign against the old red peril.
This month the Indonesian army announced the Suharto-era propaganda film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI, or "Betrayal of the Communists", would be screened across the country.
In the lead-up to 30 September, the anniversary of a failed 1965 coup that was blamed on Indonesia's then communist party, the army said the screenings were crucial to ensure people understood the "correct" version of history.
The epic 1984 propaganda film, which depicts communists as violent savages, is being played in villages, mosques and to the military. During the Suharto era it was mandatory viewing – aired on state television every 30 September until his downfall in 1998.
As part of this latest offensive the military has also issued an internal memo to its troops to restrict screenings of Joshua Oppenheimer's 2014 documentary film The Look of Silence. That film depicts a rather different version of events – one that explores the violence of the Indonesian state.
According to historians, in 1965-1966 Islamic youth and paramilitary groups with military backing massacred between 500,000 and one million suspected communists across the country.
More than half a century later that bloody purge remains deeply sensitive. No one has ever been held to account. It is why the military is attempting to limit Oppenheimer's film, and why the ghosts of communism continue to be dredged up even though the ideology has been outlawed here since 1966.
"It is this peculiar situation in that communism has been exterminated, has been extinct in Indonesia since 1965, and yet it is a country in which communism never really died," says Oppenheimer of recent events. "They are stuck in evoking or conjuring the spectre of communism to keep people silent and afraid."
Back in 1965, a time when the "domino theory" on the global spread of communism loomed large, Indonesia's Communist party (PKI) was the third-largest of its kind in the world. This time 52 years ago, a group calling themselves the 30th September Movement kidnapped and murdered six generals. Blamed on the communists, the event led to the rise of Indonesia's strongman ruler Suharto and the mass bloodletting that ensued.
Each year there are incidents that expose Indonesia's ongoing communist phobia – the arrest, for example, of unaware tourists detained for wearing T-shirts with the hammer and sickle logo.
But the anti-communist paranoia has surged significantly in the past month. Behind it, say analysts, is the military jockeying for political gain in the lead up to the 2019 presidential election.
"The military always tries to paint themselves as politically neutral," explains Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer at General Achmad Yani University in Bandung of the decision to run the public screenings. "But now you have the head of the military basically politicising everything."
The public screenings this year have also coincided with attacks against purported communists. In the past month a planned seminar about 1965 at Jakarta's Legal Aid Institute was met with violent protests by hardliners and rent-a-thugs. This week a group established to collect and share stories from 1965 was branded "communist" on social media sites.
And at a rally in the capital on Friday thousands of protestors gathered at the gates of the parliament to decry a "communist revival".
Evoking the threat of threat of communism to instil fear has proven very effective in Indonesia in the past, notes Yosef Djakababa, a history lecturer and director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies Indonesia.
"It forces citizens to seek protection from an institution that can be seen as capable of protecting them," he argues. "In the past it was the military that has proven, through this narrative, that they are ones that are able to protect the country from communism."
In Indonesia communist ties are still a kind of political kryptonite. A smear campaign that falsely branded then-candidate Joko Widodo as a communist and ethnic Chinese almost cost him the 2014 presidential election.
Last year a government-organised symposium on the events of 1965 gave some hope the government might finally be ready to face its ugly past. But the momentum to officially acknowledge past rights abuses appears to have lost steam.
Even when in recent weeks the president suggested the Suharto-era propaganda film be "updated" for millennials, he was quickly shot down. His coordinating security minister quickly clarified, saying the president did not mean the film's overall message, the anti-communist narrative, should be changed.
In any case it seems most Indonesian millennials – who have not been forced to watch the film every year – don't think about communism much at all. Judging by his students, lecturer Djakababa says many in his class can't understand why people would "kill each other over ideas".
"They can understand that people can kill each other if they fight over resources, like oil for example, energy," he says, "But for ideology, communism. What is communism?"